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Residents react to last-minute selectmen's meeting

May 20, 2009
NEW DURHAM — Colleagues and residents alike had harsh words for selectmen Dave Bickford and Terry Jarvis last week regarding their decision to conduct a hastily-posted meeting on personnel issues on May 4, despite the absence of both board Chairman Ron Gehl and Town Administrator April Whittaker, who were out of state.

After calling the board's May 11 meeting to order, Gehl said he "couldn't help but feel that this was more of a stunt than anything else."

Stating that he had seen no indication in the brief minutes from the May 4 meeting that anything of an urgent nature had been discussed, he demanded an explanation as to why Bickford and Jarvis felt they could not have waited one more day to meet as a full board.

"What gives?" he asked. "I fail to see how this was an emergency. It irks me … it really irks me."

Jarvis explained that an item had been brought to her attention on Friday, May 1, that she felt constituted an emergency situation.

She contacted Bickford later that evening before heading out of state herself, she said, and the two of them agreed to post an unscheduled meeting in the mistaken belief that Gehl would be returning from a family vacation during the day the following Monday, when in fact he did not return home until that night.

An attempt was made to notify Gehl of the meeting by e-mail, she added.

Commenting that the e-mail had been sent the day before the meeting, and that he had no means of retrieving it while away, Gehl said that in his opinion, his colleagues' efforts to contact him did not "cut it."

"This could have waited until tonight," he said, asking that the other board members call his cell phone with any last-minute schedule changes in the future.

The secretive and hasty nature of the meeting, combined with the questionable manner in which it was posted, "does not appear right," he said.

"Let's just keep it above-board" and be careful about creating false emergencies in the future, he added.

Recalling that Bickford had consistently objected to conducting non-public discussions without a good reason during his chairmanship of the board, and noting that Jarvis had based her campaign for selectman on promises of increased openness in town government, former selectman Peter Rhoades said during last week's Citizens' Forum that he was shocked to see what he described as the "quickie notice" they posted at Town Hall on the Sunday before their emergency meeting.

"It was a piece of paper," he said, adding that the notice simply listed the time and date of the meeting, with no agenda attached.

After seeing the notice, he said, he called Gehl and asked whether he had been notified because it didn't seem to fit Gehl's M.O. "to be sneaky, and do a last-minute posting."

Gehl called him back at around 9 p.m. the night of the meeting, he said, to explain that no one had called him, and that he had just found the e-mail informing him of the meeting.

"We have cell phones today," Rhoades said, adding that he would have expected the chairman of the board to be notified by any available means in the event of a true emergency.

The fact that Gehl returned his phone call so late at night, he said, demonstrated that Gehl would have made himself available for an emergency meeting had he been in the area at the time.

"But to have a surprise meeting at 7 [p.m.] … it does seem like a stunt," he said.

Admonishing Bickford (who he said should have had Gehl's cell phone number after having served on the board for the past two years) for not coming to him if he had lost it, Rhoades remarked that, "when I'm at Disney World, I'm not checking my e-mails every day."

Commenting that he was "shocked at Terry" for encouraging the non-public meeting, which he said was "totally against the platform she ran on," Rhoades demanded an explanation from Jarvis and Bickford of why the issue could not be put off until the next scheduled board meeting, and felt that the townspeople deserved an explanation, as well.

"If it was that important, then tell us that," he said, adding that he was "disappointed" to see the board moving once again toward where it was several years ago, with decisions made behind closed doors during "secret" meetings.

"Do I have to come down on Sundays now and check for a surprise meeting?" he asked. "I find it shocking that in four years [when I served on the board], there were no issues that were this hot."

Bickford said he was unable to provide details at the moment, but planned to discuss in non-public what information the board might be able to bring forward.

Explaining that she had gone to the post office the Saturday before the May 4 meeting, and again that Monday, and had not seen a notice posted there, resident Mary McHale urged the board to post any unscheduled meetings in multiple locations, not just at the Town Hall.

"If the only way we can find out about a meeting is to come to Town Hall every day, then I think that's not the kind of board that I'm hoping you will be," she said.

Varney named new fire chief

Announcing the results of a recent straw poll conducted to determine how members of the town's fire department would feel about the board appointing Peter Varney to the position of Chief, Gehl said the vote was nearly unanimous at 17-1, with the dissenting vote filed under the "intent unclear" category due to the fact that another name had been written in below Varney's.

With a motion on the floor from Gehl to appoint Varney, Jarvis asked the prospective chief what his vision was for the department over the next 12 months, and whether he anticipated having to search for full-time staff within the next three to five years.

Varney replied that his focus over the next year would be primarily on maintenance of vehicles and equipment, and on holding the line financially to ensure that the department can get by with the money remaining its New Equipment fund (which was slashed significantly during budget season last year).

Addressing the issue of additional staff members, he said it would most likely become necessary to add people to the day shift over the next few years.

Although the department has been able to cover 98 percent of its runs without calling mutual aid, he said, the most difficult time period to cover has been 6 to 9 a.m.

The board voted unanimously in favor of the appointment.

Dam update

Road Agent Mark Fuller announced during his bi-weekly report to the board that he attended a recent meeting on the Marchs Pond Dam project, and learned that the attorneys will be holding an on-site meeting with property owners shortly.

Road work is planned near the causeway, he said, with additional construction scheduled on the embankments.

According to the recently-submitted evaluation of the project by a professional engineer, Fuller said, the retaining wall's capacity of 3,000 psi has been deemed "adequate."

A chain-link fence will be put in along the side of the spillway access, he said, and it has been recommended that the town put a second fence in on the other side.

It was also recommended, he explained, that abutters be allowed access to the water on both sides of the dam via three-foot-wide walkways composed of three-quarter-inch stone.

The town, he said, would be asked to donate the stone, and the construction company would install the walkways.

With a 12-foot-wide crushed stone access ramp being constructed for boaters on the Chalk Pond side of the dam, Fuller recommended that the town install a concrete boat ramp on the Marchs Pond side that abutters could also use to walk down to the water, and which he said would cost the town roughly $2,000 to $3,000.

Gehl felt that the cost of the ramp could be added to the amount already bonded for the repairs.

Next meeting

The board met again this past Monday night (May 18). Look for a re-cap of that meeting in next week's issue.

Brendan Berube can be reached at 569-3126 or bberube@salmonpress.com

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